Record daily COVID-19 case numbers, increasing variant cases and signs of exponential growth led the British Columbia government to enact a “circuit-breaker” lockdown today.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced far-reaching health measures that include ordering an end to indoor dining and group fitness activities at midnight tonight, with no opening until April 19. Whistler Blackcomb ski resort will be closed for the same period.
Henry also reversed her decision to temporarily allow small indoor religious services.
And Henry and Premier John Horgan stressed the importance of following all existing orders, including limiting indoor gatherings and outdoor dining to one’s own household.
The province also says it will encourage all students in Grades 4 to 12 to wear masks at all times.
“A circuit-breaker is now required to break the chains of transmission in our province and allow us to safely move forward through the next few weeks,” said Henry in a briefing.
“Contact tracing has shown us that these settings amplify the spread.”
The province reported a record 936 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, 805 cases on Sunday and 774 on Monday.
Test positivity rates have also risen from around six per cent on average to nearly 10 per cent across the province — and much higher in some areas — signalling rapid case growth.
Among the weekend’s new cases are 329 cases of variants that can be more transmissible and more severe. There are a total of 2,233 cases in the province, most of them the B117 United Kingdom variant.
“These are driving much of our current transmission,” Henry said. “We’re finding, with some of these variants, that it spreads that much more easily — all the measures that we need to take are that much more important.”
The P1 variant, first associated with Brazil and believed to be less responsive to vaccines, now accounts for 270 cases in clusters traced to travel to and from Whistler and into Interior Health.
“People who have travelled to Whistler and then gone home… we’re starting to see cases popping up elsewhere that are related,” said Henry. “The virus moves with people.”
But avoiding non-essential travel remains an advisory rather than an enforceable order, despite spring break travel driving a significant number of cases in the past week.
And while Horgan said the government is working on an aid plan for restaurant, fitness and tourism workers who could be laid off within hours, no measures are yet in place.
The province continues to advise people to work from home if possible as workplace cases and clusters drive community transmission.
But it has not required employers to allow and support work-from-home plans.
Horgan called on young people in particular to do more to fight transmission and not to gather.
“The cohort from 20 to 39 are not paying as much attention to these broadcasts and, quite frankly, are putting the rest of us in a challenging situation,” he said. “Do not blow this.”
“I’m asking, I’m appealing to young people to curtail your social activity.”
But reaction on social media was quick and critical, noting many people in that category, particularly women and racialized people, were frontline workers in service industries and required to deal with the public every day in settings that made social distancing impossible.
People age 20 to 39 have accounted for a rising proportion of cases in recent weeks and have been hospitalized more often and for longer.
The new B.C. restrictions come on the same day the National Advisory Committee on Immunization issues advised provinces to halt use of the AstraZeneca/Covishield vaccine among people under 55 due to a possible link between the shot and rare blood clots.
Henry said across the tens of millions of shots administered, the instance of blood clots was “very rare,” but the province would pause until more evidence was available.
AstraZeneca in B.C. has been earmarked for the essential workers’ vaccine effort running parallel to the age-based roll-out to the general population with Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Henry said the vaccine is safe and for the time being will continue to be administered to those over age 55.
“This vaccine is an important vaccine globally and in Canada,” she said, “And we know from studies that have been done that it is safe.”
Health Minister Adrian Dix stressed that the vaccine effort in B.C., which has so far administered 699,092 doses, isn’t enough to prevent transmission on its own.
“It was always going to need our every effort to stop the spread to give our vaccines the greatest chance to do the greatest good,” said Dix. “Our vaccine effort across B.C. cannot wage this battle alone.”
Henry stressed that anyone who feels unwell should be tested, especially if they have recently travelled elsewhere in the province.
B.C. continues to test at less than half the average per capita rate in Canada.
Outdoor, distanced gatherings with up to 10 of the same people are still allowed, but those with more school and work contacts should consider reducing this number, Henry noted.
“Let’s all of us stay outside and stay apart,” said Henry. “I’m asking you to remember that we can get through this.”
Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee